I’ve been to hundreds upon hundreds of churches around the world – not because I’m a religious fanatic or anything, but simply because visiting churches is something one seems to do when traveling. Especially when traveling in Europe. There, churches are not just a place to pray – they’re also a rich part of the cultural heritage.
But the thing is, after a while, these churches all start to look the same. Cloisters, alters, sculptures, gilding, iconography… it becomes one big, biblical blur. Beautiful, yes, but a blur all the same. You get to a point where you feel like you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen ’em all and you just stop going inside.
Maybe that’s why so many people walk past the Carmo Convent in Lisbon, Portugal without a second thought. It’s too bad though, because Carmo is not an ordinary church. It’s a church that’s been rattled and broken and is all the more magical because of it.
Built in 1423, the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the greatest gothic church in Lisbon. But in 1755 a great earthquake shook the church to its core and brought the building to its knees. The shell of the church was preserved, and from the outside, you almost wouldn’t guess what lies behind the façade.
But step inside Carmo, and you’ll realize that technically, you’re still outside. You see, there’s no roof on this church. Instead, flying buttresses reach out to the heavens – much like the enchanted ceiling in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts dining hall, bewitched to look like the sky.
Grass grows where pews once stood, stray cats nap in the sun, and cracked windows gleam pointlessly in what is now an open-air museum. A small enclosed area houses sculptures, paintings and other works of art, but it’s the ruined church that’s most captivating – not to mention surprisingly peaceful despite being in the heart of the city.
Few people seem to realize it exists, but you can get a great view of the Carmo ruins by visiting the balcony at the Guarda Nacional Republicana which is directly adjacent to the church. Entry to the Guarda Nacional Republicana museum is free but access to the balcony is limited to certain times. Go between 11am-12pm or 3-4pm on weekdays and all day on weekends.
It can be a good idea to combine a visit to the Carmo Convent with a ride up the Santa Justa Elevator. Lisbon is a rather hilly city and the elevator is an easy (and particularly dramatic) means of moving between the lower and upper parts of the Baixa-Chiado area where the Carmo Convent is located. A ride on the Santa Justa Elevator is free with a one-day transport pass. It’s worth getting the transport pass just for this purpose since a ride on the elevator will set you back €5 but a transport pass which costs €6 will give you unlimited rides on the local transport network (buses, trams & the metro) over a 24 hour period.
The Carmo Convent is located at the Largo do Carmo in the Chiado district of Lisbon, Portugal. Entry to the Carmo Archaeological Museum costs €3.50.